Nieman: Time To Report on the New GI Bill

Nieman Watchdog, a blog sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, recently spoke with IAVA's Chief Legislative Counsel Patrick Campbell for this article about implementation of the "Post 9/11 GI Bill" and how universities can better prepare for an influx of veterans on campus.

It’s Time To Report on the New GI Bill
ASK THIS | April 05, 2009

The new GI bill offers extensive tuition coverage—100 percent at state universities—and other benefits to soldiers who were on active duty for at least 90 days after 9/11. What impact will it have?

By Alexa Millinger

Derek Blumke, a six-year active duty Air Force veteran deployed three times to Afghanistan who is now an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, said that many of his classmates just don’t understand that asking him if he has killed anyone in combat is “not an appropriate question.”

Blumke, who founded the group Student Veterans of America, said the transition from the battlefield to college campus is a tough and under-addressed issue. Student veterans often find themselves the oldest one in the classroom, and with experiences to which their classmates cannot relate. Many of Blumke’s peers at the University of Michigan just “don’t understand what [veterans] have gone through.”

Blumke, shown at right, and others are working with colleges across the country to address student veteran needs as schools gear up for a new wave of veterans to fill their classrooms, who will have their tuition covered by the new, Post 9/11 GI Bill, slated to kick in Aug. 1.

“The GI Bill could not come at a better time,” said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated the influx of veterans on campus to be between 20 and 25 percent over the next few years from the nearly 1.8 million veterans who have served since 9/11.But experts have since backed down from that number, as many servicemen are opting to remain enlisted due to the uncertain economic climate.

The new bill will provide a much-needed upgrade to its antiquated counterpart, passed by the government at the end of World War II and hailed at the time by veterans as one of the country’s finest pieces of legislation. Veterans who have served at least three years on active duty since 9/11 are eligible for 100 percent tuition coverage at any public two- or four-year college in the country. (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that veterans who served 90 days would be eligible for 100 percent tuition coverage. Those who have served at least 90 days are eligible for the minimum amount of coverage under the bill, 40 percent.) The bill covers tuition at private colleges up to the cost of the most expensive in-state university. Additionally, it provides stipends for the housing and other expenses – including books, supplies and tutoring.

But many universities may not be prepared for an influx of veterans on campuses, or to ease the disconnect and detachment veterans often feel in adjusting to campus life.

University administrators say they often direct veterans to the school’s counseling center, but some of the difficulty student veterans face may be eased by organizing themselves into student groups and forming a network on campus. Student Veterans of America, Blumke’s organization, has helped students start their own veterans groups on campuses nationally. Blumke said many students have told him that without a support system of other veterans on campus, they may not have been able to handle the college experience.

University administrations can play a role in easing the transition for veterans as well.

James Selbe, assistant vice president for the Lifelong Learning project at the American Council on Education, has worked with the VA and traveled the country hosting conferences to educate universities on how they can better serve veterans.

“What we heard time and time again from vets was that they were frustrated being directed from office to office when they have an issue that’s related specifically to a veteran,” Selbe said.

Due to pressure from increasingly vocal student veteran groups, as well as preparation for the effects of the new GI Bill, many universities have begun ramping up their services for veterans by hiring advisers or, in some cases, creating an entire office devoted to facilitating veterans’ needs. The University of California, Los Angeles, has appointed a staff member in virtually all university offices to be the point person on veterans’ issues. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, has appointed an assistant dean of veterans affairs and ombuds services.

“We have quickly moved from rhetoric to action,” Selbe said.

Despite this progress, Blumke has found that there is still an existing mentality among some university administrators that veterans don’t belong on their campuses.

“They see us as people who went into the military because it was their last option,” he said. He said this “elitist thinking” depends on the college.

Campbell echoed this idea, saying that “some schools are ignoring the fact that vets are even on their campus.”

Many colleges have begun to address providing services to veterans. But veterans groups say there is much work to be done. Still, many schools do not offer transfer credit for military training courses – training Blumke called “the best in the world” – or offer tuition refunds to students who are deployed mid-semester.

One provision of the new bill is the Yellow Ribbon Program.  Under it, private institutions whose tuitions are only partially covered by the GI Bill will commit to funding a portion of the remaining tuition costs, which the VA will then match. Colleges can choose what amount they will fund, though the poor economic situation and endowment losses at private colleges may affect the levels to which they commit. The final guidelines and rules for the new GI Bill were released in early April. Colleges are now able to review them and determine their level of commitment.

Veterans groups are hoping private colleges will fund the Yellow Ribbon program to their full extent, making even the most expensive private colleges within the reach of veterans.